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Buddy
Gary Smith
July 11, 1994
During his 37-year career Buddy Ryan, new coach of the Arizona Cardinals, has inspired two emotions: love and hate
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July 11, 1994

Buddy

During his 37-year career Buddy Ryan, new coach of the Arizona Cardinals, has inspired two emotions: love and hate

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Crawling out of bed, because he knows, he just knows, that it's like it was with that Italian in his platoon in Korea, shot to hell, refusing the medic's order to lie down in the stretcher: If he lies down and waits, he's going to die. Buddy rearranges the brace so his neck won't move and the pain won't stab him again. He steps outside, the Bears' defensive coordinator alone in the suburban dawn. He lifts the extension ladder, the same act that triggered the heart attack that killed his lather at the age of 74. He climbs it rung by rung and begins to do what his dad did every day for five decades. Wincing, he paints the house.

Click. Death misses him again. Then, within a year of the surgery, everyone begins calling for the head of Bear coach Neill Armstrong, and Buddy appears on the verge of being dumped once more, of becoming a 50-year-old fired assistant waiting on the whims of yet another head coach. Click. Another reprieve. Hall of Fame defensive lineman Alan Page, playing out his last years with the Bears, and Fencik write a powerful letter to owner George Halas pleading that Buddy be spared. The entire defense signs it, because somehow Buddy makes them feel vicious but never guilty. Somehow he makes them feel as if they're better than anyone else but not quite good enough yet for him. Somehow he makes them feel threatened, backs to the wall, beer glasses turned upside down. Somehow he makes them feel like pirates, and like children.

Halas rides into the middle of practice on a golf cart one day in December 1981. No matter what happens, he tells the defense, Buddy will remain and run the defense as he wishes. Consider the collision of feeling inside Buddy, the relief of knowing that the old man isn't discarding him, the pain of wondering why the old man is overlooking him and naming Ditka, a man eight honest years younger than Buddy, a man with no head coaching experience, to run the Bears. Faster it whirls, faster and faster, the contredanse of Buddy's softness and hardness, his vulnerability and strength.

Picture Buddy's bewildering "46" attack defense, a mirror of its maker—risking total vulnerability to its rear for total intimidation up front—turning into one of the most savage defenses in NFL history, setting a league record for sacks in '84, leading the league in nine categories in '85, shutting out two straight playoff opponents that year, then choking the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10 and carrying Buddy Ryan on its shoulders off the field.

PLANK: His defense was just so much fun to play. Something like 20 different coverages, 13 fronts, anywhere from five to eight guys blitzing from every possible angle, and most of it based on sight adjustments and decisions we had to make after the snap. You never felt like robots playing his defense. You had to think. He gave us a stake in it.

FENCIK: Our meetings were like being in a family room. Buddy stoking on his pipe, pulling on that Captain Black tobacco, dropping comments.

PLANK: "Forty-six, 54, good play.... Forty-five and 62, dumb-ass.... Seventy-two and 43, horse——.... Ninety-five, pussy"—that's how he'd grade us. Cracked us up.

FENCIK: Me, Dan Hampton and Otis Wilson would be lying on the floor. Somebody else would have his head laid on the chalk tray, somebody else walking in late.

PLANK: He didn't care about little stuff once you proved you were one of his guys. Just one word from him, and he knew we'd be ready to kill.

HAMPTON: You had to pay a price to get in that circle, but once you did, it was like the Green Berets. An aura. A badge of courage. You'd look at those who couldn't pay the price with disdain.

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